Having worked in the conservation ag sector for 25+ years, director of Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), Ryan Heiniger, says that he has seen a lot of different types of cover crop/regenerative ag incentive and cost-share programs fail and succeed. But he feels that the current momentum around incentivizing conservation ag is bigger than it has ever been.

“In my 25 years I have never seen the amount of support for these types of resources galvanized the way I’m seeing it today,” Heiniger says.

Global Impact

In recent months, several major companies around the globe have announced significant efforts to increase regenerative agriculture acres and incentivize conservation ag practices for farmers. PepsiCo has pledged to spread regenerative farming across 7 million acres by the end of the decade and to sustainably source 100% of its key ingredients and crops by the same date. And Pepsi isn’t the only major company trying to move the needle on the regenerative ag movement.

In October of 2023, General Mills, Walmart and Sam’s Club announced a collaboration to help accelerate the adoption of regenerative agriculture on 600,000 acres in the U.S. by 2030. Specifically, they mentioned the need to regenerate acres of land in key regions where the companies source ingredients from.

Nestle also announced in 2023 a plan to transition around 100,000 acres of land to regenerative ag practices. The company cited the need to help wheat farmers in the U.S. leverage regenerative ag practices “through a combination of financial support and technical resources and assistance.” They also specifically mentioned cover crops, no-till and reducing the use of pesticides as three of the regenerative ag practices that they will help provide financial assistance for.

Rewarding Early Adopters

In Spring of 2023, the USDA announced that it would be implementing a learning network for the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities Program, which will provide up to $3 billion to establish over 140 partnerships that will help create new revenue streams and new markets to quantify and incentivize climate-smart ag practices.

One of these 140 programs is Farmers for Soil Health, which received the largest single grant at $95 million, provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

“The important part here is that the program itself was created by National Corn Growers, United Soybean Board and the National Pork Board,” Heiniger says. “So farmers created the program for other farmers with the goal of getting 30 million acres under cover crops by 2030.”

Heiniger says that the payments for this program, and many of the others, are so flexible that growers can even apply retroactively if they planted cover crops this past fall and did not have any other federal funds involved. This allows growers who are already ahead of the game with no-till, cover crops and other conservation ag practices to be rewarded for the work they’ve already been doing. It also takes a lot of the extra legwork off the farmer’s plate and allows companies to come to them.

“It’s essentially a portal for farmers who choose to sell off any carbon credits or any other GHG credits or other eco asset credits, or farmers who are implementing conservation ag practices like cover crops and no-till to be able to document those practices and have companies or other bidders see that and come to you,” Heiniger says.

Implementing Change

In the 2022-23 CTIC National Cover Crop Survey, most growers who answered that they are not already planting cover crops shared the same concern for not wanting to do so — no measurable economic return. Out of 795 total respondents, 151 answered a question about their biggest barrier for not wanting to plant cover crops. 60% of those growers stated that lack of a measurable economic return was a major concern for them. Yield reduction in the following cash crop was the next biggest barrier — listed as a major concern for roughly 59% of those 151 growers.

Heiniger believes that cover crop incentive programs and other projects that provide payment opportunities to farmers who adopt conservation ag practices such as no-till and cover crops could be a good answer to stimmying that concern among growers and increasing cover crop and no-till usage in the U.S.

144 non-cover crop users also answered a question in the survey about what resources would be most helpful in encouraging them to plant cover crops. Information on economic return was the number 1 answer, with roughly 44% of respondents saying it would be very helpful. The second most popular answer was cost-share or incentives, with about 40% of respondents saying those programs would be very helpful and another 20% saying the programs would be at least moderately helpful in encouraging them to plant cover crops.

Another encouraging statline from the survey shows that growers who do start planting cover crops because they have enrolled in a cost-share program are very likely to continue planting covers even after the program has ended. 270 growers answered a question about intent to plant cover crops after payments have ended, and 90% of them said either definitely or probably.

Conservation Continuity

Scott Herndon, president of Field to Market, an organization that connects all the agricultural supply chain to sustainable ag practices, says his company’s mission aligns closely with those 90% who answered positively about continuing to plant cover crops after payments have ended.

“Our whole mantra is that you can't just be one and done,” Herndon says. “You can't just be sustainable and then stop. Our theory is that you always have to be advancing and making changes for continuous improvement. And we do this by uniting.”

Herndon says that Field to Market is creating tools that will help growers get over their concerns about lack of economic return or depleting yields due to cover crop or no-till adoption. One of those tools is called Fieldprint Platform.

“Any farmer can go online and enter data into this tool,” Herndon says. “It's confidential and you can play around with it and set up various scenarios to see what the outcomes would be if you made some adjustments in your farming practices. You can also use it to enter real data or your actual practices. And this information is presented in this method called a spider gram, which shows your land use, your soil conservation, soil carbon, greenhouse gas, water quality, biodiversity, and anything else as it applies to your production.”

Heiniger also feels that growers need to do their part to start some of these ideas and conversations about programs in areas where they do not already exist.

“One of the challenges I would put forth to all growers is this,” Heiniger says. “If you are not actively dialoguing with your co-op, with the people you sell grain to, your other input suppliers, have the conversation to inquire about what programs are available and come up with some ideas to do something from scratch. This universe that is assembling to support farmers is very anxious to get feedback and there is truly no limit to the number of conservation ag pilot program opportunities.”

Related Content:

CTIC Partners with Program to Increase Cover Crops on Corn, Soybean Acres,

Canadian Senators Question Why Early No-Till Adopters Left Out of Incentives,

Food Companies Lack Funding Plans for Sustainability, Regenerative Ag